Sue Miller’s The Arsonist is a perfect read for the season, combining a vacation town setting with family drama, romance, and a mystery that unfolds during the hottest days of summer. It opens on Frankie Rowley, just returned from 15 years doing aid work in Africa, figuring out her next move from the claustrophobic comfort of her parents’ summer home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire. As a string of unsolved arsons throws the town into a panic, Frankie falls for the town’s newspaperman, opens her eyes to the state of her parents’ marriage, and investigates her life in Africa from a safe distance. I talked to Miller about the inspiration behind the plot, writerly superstitions, and the excitement of picking up a book you know nothing about.
Of The Arsonist’s many threads, which came to you first?
One thread was that my parents had rented a place in this summer community in New Hampshire for a lot of years. And at a certain point my father bought this house and I was helping clean it up and fix it up during a summer when, in the next town over, there was a series of arsons that were very widely covered. It was this beautiful pristine little town that looked right over the presidential region, people had never locked their doors at night, etcetera, etcetera. And in that case I think there were 30 arsons before it ended. I was up there a lot that summer and was very frightened. People were arming themselves, taking turns sleeping as they are in The Arsonist. So that was one impulse for the book.
And another strand came because my son lived in Africa for a number of years, and he has a lot of friends who are living in Japan, and it’s this generation that’s much more global than mine was. It’s the idea of what home will end up meaning to such a person—how necessary it is or sort of isn’t. So to me those two things came together, the notion of whose home the town was, and where Frankie could find a home if she needs one.
I was struck by how sympathetic you are to all your characters, even people like Frankie’s parents, who aren’t always very likable. Do you ever write a character where you just can’t get inside their mind in a positive way?
Well, sometimes not in a positive way. But to me that’s one of the great pleasures of writing. I had one novel in which there was a murderer, for instance, and to try to imagine how that felt—how it felt to him and how he needed to do that at that particular time and how he sort of defended it to himself later—it was just very interesting to me. There’s one character in another novel that I sort of really stood outside of because he was a guy in his 50s who slept with a 14-year-old young woman—so he was not one of the people into whose head I stepped. But I tried to make that a complicated issue, not necessarily as simple as we would think it would be, a straightforward bad guy. I feel that what interests me is to sort of imagine myself as this person or that person.
I understand that your writing process is less about sitting down for a number of hours, and more done in a piecemeal fashion. Does that still work for you today?
It does. Although there are periods when I’m working very, very hard, and usually I go away somewhere and just work all day and into the evening. So it’s very irregular, all of it. And there are periods when I don’t work or when I just make notes and don’t hold myself responsible for the shape of the words on the page. These are just notes for me, exploration, not accountable in terms of the language.
It sounds like you’re not a superstitious writer at all—it’s not like you need a specific chair, a specific pen.
Well, I do write in longhand. That’s born not so much of superstition but from when I was teaching a long time ago, before my first book was published, at MIT. And it was before computers were really widely used. They were studying the use of language in computers, and I had a student studying with some professor who said they were discovering the structure and the use of language changed a lot when you were using a computer. So I thought “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.” (After writing in notebooks), I type it out and work on the typed version in pen and ink. But I also have the original notebooks.
And I understand you were a writer for a number of years before your books began to be published?
I’ve been writing all my life, in fact. I wrote a novel in my early twenties, I won a high school prize. My short story got published and I got 50 dollars, which was a huge deal.
Do you remember what you spent it on?
Probably clothes. And then I wrote a novel when I was young and had a kid and just wrote a little for about a decade. And then began to write more assiduously. I wrote another one in my late thirties that I then cannibalized for different scenes, but I think I’ve used so much of that that there’s nothing left. I ate it.
And when you’re working on a book, do you tailor what you read to what you’re working on? Do you have any sense of you can’t read certain things?
There are things I read doing research, and there are certain books and writers I just love to read. There are books of Brian Morten’s that I love, for instance. There’s a wonderful book by an Australian writer named Helen Garner called The Children’s Bach, and I just love the way she uses language in it. These are sort of talismanic for me, I like to look at them over and over. They’re very different from me, but somehow they are exciting to me to look at.
And you say you were a writer from your very early years. Do you remember any books that kind of set you on that path, any particular writers?
Jane Eyre must have been something I read six or seven times as an early adolescent. And Kristin Lavransdatter, and Lorna Doone when I was younger. My parents had a pretty rich library, no jackets on any of the books, so no descriptions. You just pulled something off the shelf and started to read it. There was no knowing what was going to happen in this book, no flap copy. And if you liked it, you kept reading. That was sort of magical in a certain way. Before I got married I always removed the jackets and threw them away because I just felt as though they’re sort of extraneous. That text that tells you what you’re about to read, it takes something away from the novel for me. Now I’ve learned to keep the jackets on, but I do think flap copy often gives away too much or tells you how you’re supposed to read this book. When I was a kid, I loved just launching into a book without any idea where it might head, what it was going to be about. It was very exciting.
So when you begin to write, are you more of a plotter or a seat-of-the-pantser?
A plotter. I like to know where I’m going. Certainly detours happen, but I feel as though I want the book to have a kind of resonance. That the whole book participates in all of the book, essentially, so I know how it’s going to end up when I begin. There are a lot of things I don’t know when I start out, but I do know the general trajectory of the book.
So what are you working on right now?
Nothing! I didn’t finish (The Arsonist) until late October or so, and I’ve been teaching in the spring, and there was all the going over the text for copyediting, and reading the galleys to be sure there were no typos. And then I did the Arsonist audiobook, too.
You do your own audiobooks?
I started with a nonfiction book about my father and Alzheimer’s disease. I couldn’t imagine anyone else reading that book, because I was the narrator of that book. So I read that one, then I listened to a couple other readers for other books of mine, and just really felt that that wasn’t the right way for it to be read. I always hear it in my own head in a certain way, and that’s the way I wanted it to be, so I asked to do this one and the one before. And I think I’m doing okay at it, so I think they’ll let me continue to do it.
Do you find yourself doing voices?
A little bit. I mean, it’s interesting: you don’t want to be acting it, exactly, you’re reading it. But you want to sort of half-act, give something. It’s a very curious sort of activity.
So now that you have kind of a break between books, what are you excitedly reading as fast as you can?
I read a book by Aminatta Forna called The Hired Man, it’s just a wonderful, wonderful book. And I just finished Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, which I liked. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a character, it has diaries, it’s just a really complicated and interesting book. I just finished The Good Lord Bird, and I just read Julia Glass’s And the Dark Sacred. And I had a former student named Elizabeth McCracken, and she’s got this fabulous collection of short stories that just came out called Thunderstruck. It’s just wonderful, I loved it.
Okay, my to-read list is filled out now.
Sue Miller’s The Arsonist is out today! We recommend adding it to your to-read list.